Sometimes even minor tweaks in how you think about a goal or the language you use to describe it can make a difference.

Coaches in a highly regarded semiprofessional soccer league were told to prep their players for high-pressure penalty kicks with one of two statements: “You are going to shoot five penalties.  Your aspiration is to score at least three times.”  Or “You are going to shoot five penalties.  Your obligation is to not miss more than twice.”  You probably wouldn’t expect a small change in wording to affect these practiced, highly motivated players.  But it had a big impact.  Players did significantly better when the instructions were framed to match their dominant motivational focus, which the researchers had previously measured.  This was especially true for prevention-minded players, who scored nearly twice as often when they received the don’t-miss instructions.

In another study that used framing, students were assigned to write a report, for which they would be paid, and deliver it by a certain date.  They were asked to make a specific plan, detailing when, where, and how they would write the report.

One version of the instructions was designed to fit a promotion focus: imagine a convenient time when you will be able to write your report.  Imagine a comfortable, quiet place where you might write your report.  Imagine yourself capturing as many details as you can and making your report vivid and interesting.

The other version was designed to fit a prevention focus: imagine times that will be inconvenient for writing your report so that you can avoid them.  Imagine places that will be uncomfortable or have lots of distraction so that you can avoid writing your report there.  Imagine yourself not forgetting any details and being careful not to make your report bland or boring.

Remarkably, students who received instructions suited to their dominant motivational focus were about 50% more likely than others to turn in their reports.  So when you are trying to keep yourself or someone else motivated, remember that promotion-focused people need to think about what they are doing in terms of positives (what they aspire to, how best to accomplish the task) and prevention-focused people should instead think about negatives (potential mistakes, obstacles to avoid).


Once goals are set in a way that creates motivational fit, sustain the fit by seeking out—or, as a manager, giving—the right kind of feedback.  Promotion-focused people tend to increase their efforts when a supervisor offers them praise for excellent work, whereas prevention-focused people are more responsive to criticism and the looming possibility of failure.  For instance, in one study we found that the promotion-focused were more motivated and tried harder in the midst of a task when they were assured that they were on target to reach a goal as opposed to when they were told that they were below target but could catch up.  For prevention-focused people the reverse was true: they tried harder when told they weren’t on target; in fact, being assured of success undermined their motivation.


With acknowledgement to the work of Heidi Grant Halvorson, Ph.D. and Jonathan Halvorson, Ph.D